Nathaniel Cadle: Central American Refugees and the “Traditional” Immigrant Narrative

cadle_mediating_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Nathaniel Cadle, author of The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State. By the early twentieth century, as Woodrow Wilson would later declare, the United States had become both the literal embodiment of all the earth’s peoples and a nation representing all other nations and cultures through its ethnic and cultural diversity. This idea of connection with all peoples, Cadle argues, allowed American literary writers to circulate their work internationally, in turn promoting American literature and also the nation itself. Reexamining the relationship between Progressivism and literary realism, Cadle demonstrates that the narratives constructed by American writers asserted a more active role for the United States in world affairs and helped to shift global influence from Europe to North America.

In today’s post, Cadle discusses how history can lend clarity to the murky contemporary debate about the distinction between “traditional” immigrants and refugees.


The recent debate over the exact status of the tens of thousands of Central American children attempting to cross the U.S. border reminds us that there is often a very fine line dividing an immigrant from a refugee. It turns out that, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans—regardless of age or political or religious affiliation—view these children as refugees rather than as illegal immigrants. Of course, the term “refugee” designates a special legal status that carries a wide range of political and bureaucratic implications. In citing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 as potentially applicable in the case of the Central American children, for example, the Obama administration is making a case that these children have the right to legal and medical aid and that their deportation cannot be fast-tracked, as it often is for undocumented Mexican immigrants.

While our current conception of refugees is largely a product of the Second World War, the people that we tend to think of as having been “traditional” immigrants to the United States were often fleeing the same kinds of unrest and oppression that we now associate with asylum seekers. In his 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky, generally regarded as one of the classic American narratives about the immigrant experience, Abraham Cahan claims that the primary impetus for many Jews to migrate from Russia to the United States during the 1880s was the violent anti-Semitic pogroms that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II and that were tacitly endorsed by the Russian government. “An anti-Semitic riot broke out in a southern town named Elisabethgrad in the early spring of 1881,” Cahan writes. “It took place one month after the assassination of the Czar, Alexander II. [. . . ] Yet the police, so far from suppressing it, encouraged it. The example of the Elisabethgrad rabble was followed by the riffraff of other places. The epidemic quickly spread from city to city. [. . . ] Over five million people were suddenly made to realize that their birthplace was not their home. [. . . ] Then it was that the cry ‘To America!’ was raised” (pp. 60-61). Levinsky, the protagonist of the novel (and, in many ways, a fictional surrogate for the author, who was an immigrant himself), moves to the United States shortly thereafter.

As an educator, I find that identifying literary and historical precedents for current debates helps students contextualize, make sense of, and evaluate the various sides of those ongoing debates, especially when, as in the case of immigration, the rhetoric tends to be hyperbolic. When Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita suggested that the Central American children might be carrying the Ebola virus, despite the fact that no human has ever contracted Ebola in the Western Hemisphere, he was extending the tradition of the “carrier narrative,” which literary critic Priscilla Wald has identified as a means of underwriting the state’s efforts to control immigrant bodies since the days of “Typhoid Mary.” For its part, when it was first published, The Rise of David Levinsky served as an important corrective to the sort of anti-immigrant rhetoric that worked from the assumption that each new group of immigrants (Irish, Chinese, Russian Jews, Italians, etc.) is somehow incapable of being integrated into the social fabric of the nation.

Cahan frequently questions the goal of assimilation by examining its effects on immigrants themselves, but he nevertheless ends his novel by celebrating the contributions of Russian Jews to the economic and cultural life of the United States. Levinsky, who becomes a leading figure in New York City’s garment industry, muses, “Foreigners ourselves, and mostly unable to speak English, we had Americanized the system of providing clothes for the American woman of moderate or humble means. [. . . ] We had done away with prohibitive prices and greatly improved the popular taste. Indeed, the Russian Jew has made the average American girl a ‘tailor-made’ girl” (p. 443). If the historical precedent of these Jewish refugee-immigrants is any indication, then it is by no means outside the realm of possibility that the Central American children now attracting so much attention in the media could integrate themselves into—and contribute to—American society, if given the opportunity.

Nathaniel Cadle is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. His new book, The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State is now available.